Can Dominic Cummings defy the political laws of gravity?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgRecent news has been dominated by Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip to Durham. As a serial rule-breaker, he seems intent on flouting the maxim that ‘when the adviser becomes the story, the adviser must go’. But with MPs returning today, other fundamental political rules may not be so easily broken, writes Meg Russell. All Prime Ministers depend on their backbenchers for support and, with Conservative MPs in open revolt over Cummings, Johnson’s backing for him may yet become untenable. In the Westminster system MPs are ultimately in charge, and there are ways in which they could assert their position.

The Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings doesn’t like to follow the rules. That’s not necessarily a statement on his lockdown-breaking trip to Durham – disdain for established rules, and specifically for conventional wisdom that can’t be directly enforced, is what Cummings has long been known for. For some, it’s seen as part of his ‘genius’. From flying a giant inflatable white elephant over the north-east during a referendum that destroyed Labour’s plans for English regional devolution, to the audacious ‘£350 million a week’ for the NHS on the Vote Leave battlebus, to the long-planned ‘people versus parliament’ election of 2019, his boundary-stretching has often proved a winning formula, and delivered for Boris Johnson.

Cummings has long shown particular disdain for traditional political institutions, and their old ways of doing things. He’s well-known for wanting to pursue radical reform of the civil service. Conservative Brexiteer MP Steve Baker, who was among the first to call for him to quit, credits Cummings with Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament for five weeks, which was overturned in the Supreme Court. That move, like several others associated with Cummings, indicated his view that conventions, or the ‘accepted way of doing things’ count for nothing, while all that matters is the letter of the law. Other examples include suggestions to ‘pack’ the House of Lords with hundreds more Brexit-supporting peers, or to advise the Queen not to sign a rebel bill into law. Indeed ‘Downing Street sources’ went even further late last year, suggesting that Johnson might refuse to abide by a law passed by parliament. Continue reading

Light and shadows: the RHI scandal and the temptations of secrecy

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The RHI inquiry in Northern Ireland has led to concerns about a record ‘void’ that has left room for doubt and suspicion. Ben Worthy argues that the lack of a record might aid political deniability, but means that politicians also can’t be truly exonerated when accused of wrongdoing.

Marilyn Stathern, in her famous article on the ‘Tyranny of transparency’, asked: ‘what does visibility conceal’?  While openness can shed light on some areas, it can also create shadows and shade to hide in. One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that openness will create an opposite and equal reaction. Instead of letting in the light, could freedom of information laws, open meetings or open data lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? Could it create what’s called a ‘chilling effect’, whereby officials and politicians bury their decisions elsewhere?

Finding any firm evidence for resistance, avoidance or concealment is notoriously difficult. It could take place in numerous ways, whether avoiding questions or requests, keeping records and decisions off paper, or using non-official emails or networks like WhatsApp. It’s hard to prove a negative, that something isn’t happening and, if avoidance done well, it should stay hidden. Only the most incompetent or inept are likely to be caught.

A few concrete examples have surfaced. We have had flashes of an apparent ‘chilling’ in the Trump White House and closer to home with Michael Gove using a private email address for public business in 2012 (as urged by his then adviser Dominic Cummings). More worrying was the evidence in Scotland in 2018 that some parts of government were engaged in ‘deliberate delaying tactics and requests being blocked or refused for tenuous reasons’. But are these isolated cases or the tip of an iceberg of systematic resistance? Studies have come to varying conclusions and a select committee in 2012 concluded that there was no firm evidence.

However, it now looks as though transparency campaigners’ worst nightmare has come to pass in Northern Ireland’s RHI scandal, as detailed in Sam McBride’s new book Burned. The RHI scandal, as the later Inquiry FAQ explains, concerns ‘the non-domestic renewable heat incentive… a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy’. However, the FAQ goes on, ‘how the scheme came about in the form in which it was adopted, how it has been operated and the possible financial consequences of the scheme have become the source of considerable public concern’. You can see the background here and a timeline. Continue reading

Challenges to good government in Northern Ireland: charting a future course

alan_rialto2-1The first part of this blog looked at Northern Ireland’s troubled experience with government without ministers for the last year and a half; while the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry offered colourful but not uplifting revelations about the way it had been conducted under devolution; and Westminster’s conduct of its responsibilities was widely questioned. Alan Whysall asks what lies behind these problems?

A lack of interest in good government and public policy has long been part of the Northern Ireland political culture. The dialogue in politics and the media has always readily reverted to the traditional issues – and more now that the parties are not constrained by the need to work together.

Partly, this illustrates the seriousness of the political and community divide that politics must seek to bridge. But the reflection of that divide in the structure of politics in Northern Ireland also means that no alternative government is on offer during elections, so misconduct in government is harder for the electorate to sanction. If the great priority of most electors is to support their community’s champion against the other side, the detail of the champion’s conduct in government gets lost. Continue reading

Challenges to good government in Northern Ireland: all shapes and sizes of icebergs

alan_rialto2-1With no ministers in charge since March 2017, public administration in Northern Ireland faces serious challenges. Civil servants have been attempting to keep things running, but on collapsing legal foundations. A public Inquiry has raised issues about competence, commitment and propriety in the old devolved government. There is little energy behind restoration of devolved government, and little lead from London. The lack of attention to good government, suggests Alan Whysall, is a serious weakness in Northern Ireland political culture that must be tackled. The first part of this blog outlines the current challenges; the second, what might be done about them.

There is a side of Northern Ireland that revels in its disasters. A whole quarter of Belfast is after all named after the Titanic, rather than the many Harland and Wolff ships that did not sink. So there was resentment when the Guinness Book of Records recently denied Northern Ireland’s claim to have gone for longer than anyone else without a government (on grounds of Westminster’s ultimate ability to intervene).

There has been no government at all as respects devolved matters since January 2017. The position is worse than in most states ‘without government’, including Guinness’ reigning champion Belgium, which have had ministers exercising caretaker functions. Northern Ireland has a legal void.

The larger political stakes around the collapse of devolution and profound disagreement over Brexit have been outlined in earlier pieces. They have continued to worsen. The focus of this blog is issues of governance – which however bear closely on future prospects of sustaining political progress. Continue reading

The latest special adviser data release: political control trumps technocratic measures of effectiveness

benjamin_yonghamish In December the government published its latest list of special advisers, revealing a small reduction in numbers under Theresa May compared to David Cameron’s 2015 government, with the reduction falling mostly on departments rather than the centre. In this post Ben Yong and Harmish Mehta examine the new list. They argue that by reducing the number of special advisers in departments Prime Minister May has prioritised political control over technocratic measures of effectiveness.

When Theresa May first became Prime Minister there were a number of reports (including in The Times, The Telegraph and Civil Service World) that she had insisted on a cap on the salaries of special advisers (spads) – which in effect would limit both the number and quality of spads appointed. This cap, the reports said, would deter good people from entering government. How true are these claims?

Just before Christmas, the government made its annual data release, setting out the number of spads and how they are distributed across government. There are now 83 spads in government; down from 95 under Cameron’s 2015 government, according to the data release. The centre (broadly defined as No. 10 and the Cabinet Office) has ‘lost’ just one spad; the key Whitehall departments have lost eleven (most significantly from the merging of BIS and DECC into BEIS; and in the Treasury). So there has been a drop in numbers, but this has fallen mostly on departments, not the centre. There has been the usual grumble about salaries and cost, but that is standard fare.

The bigger question is what all this says about May’s government, and more generally, British government. In popular parlance, spads are regarded as a waste of money and at worst, a pernicious breed of quasi-politicians. Within Westminster and Whitehall, however, they have long been accepted as part of British government. Spads are people the minister can completely trust, in a lonely and difficult role; they provide political advice of a kind that career civil servants often cannot; they can help coordinate government. It is this latter view of spads which informs some criticisms of May’s policy on spads (see The Spectator and The Telegraph). Limiting the number of spads and the kind of spads via a salary cap means limiting government effectiveness.

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UK Extended Ministerial Offices: on the road to cabinetisation

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In 2015 the Conservative government has approved the creation of five Extended Ministerial Offices (EMOs), enabling ministers to recruit more special advisers and temporary civil servants. This development, which has gone unreported by the media, was unearthed by Athanassios Gouglas. In this post he and Marleen Brans explain the background to these developments and put them in comparative context.

On 27 November 2013 the UK government agreed that Secretaries of State and other ministerial heads of departments may appoint an Extended Ministerial Office (EMO). The development was the brainchild of Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, and announced in the Cabinet Office report ‘Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On’, which was published in July 2013. It came as a follow up to a June 2013 report commissioned by Francis Maude from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) titled ‘Accountability and Responsiveness in the Senior Civil Service’. The rationale was that British government ministers are significantly under-supported in comparison with other countries, including those within the Westminster administrative tradition. Some media outlets presented the decision as a mini revolution with ministers getting new powers to appoint at their own discretion the civil servants and staff who will work in larger ministerial offices. In view of establishing extended ministerial offices under coalition government executive politics, the question was quickly raised as to whether the UK was moving down the road of establishing a ministerial cabinet system?

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Looking back at the Special Advisers book launch

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Michelle Silongan rounds up the recent launch of Ben Yong and Robert Hazell’s book on Special Advisers at the Institute for Government.

Last month the Institute for Government hosted the launch for the new book Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell. This well-attended event opened with a summation of the main findings and recommendations from the Constitution Unit’s eighteen-month study on the role of special advisers.

As Robert Hazell noted at the start of the event, Special Advisers – or ‘spads’ – deserve recognition as a mini profession. However, this recognition demands a better understanding of how to strengthen and develop this resource that ministers and Number 10 have come to rely upon. Through their research, the authors articulate three specific responses for making spads more effective: better recruitment, increased support and skills development.

Spads clearly matter to those who seek their counsel, establishing why and identifying their role within the mechanisms of government, party politics and policy development has been an under-researched area. Mapping the impact of spads can be difficult given their behind-the-scenes nature, but the use of interviews and surveys of former spads across governments from 1979 to today to inform the findings of Special Advisers, making the book a distinctive and important contribution to the field.

Three former spads also took part in the panel, each underscoring the complex balancing of roles spads face in their position. Jo Foster, former Deputy Chief of Staff to Nick Clegg, remarked that when starting out, spads often have ‘zero comprehension of the breadth of the machine and how to navigate it’. However, it is from this starting position that spads would have to emerge as gatekeepers, navigating competing demands. Rather than being drawn into ‘meltdown crises’, for example, Foster noted how she focused on caring on the ‘front of house’ and ‘keeping the show on the road’.

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The latest Special Advisers reshuffle

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A new book Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell is to be launched tonight at the Institute for Government. In this post, Ben Yong draws on the research conducted for the book to analyse the latest Spads reshuffle.

‘Won’t somebody think of the spads?!’ said one wag following the recent reshuffle. We here at the Constitution Unit (and Hull) have been. We’ve just written a book on spads, gloriously entitled Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter. We’ve spent 18 months looking at special advisers between 1979 and 2013: all 626 of them. We interviewed over 100 people, including almost 40 spads and 30 ministers (both former and current).

As part of this we’ve been looking at the tenure and distribution of spads over time, both within a government and over successive parliamentary terms. So here we present an interim analysis of the last spads reshuffle.*

The first point is turnover. Of the 63 Spads who began in 2010, only 31 remain. Half have left. The majority of the initial batch who remain are connected to ‘the big beasts’ of the government (David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg etc)—or at least, those whose ministers have not been reshuffled out.

But this misses the bigger story. The total number of spads employed by the Coalition between 2010 and 2014 is around 175. In fact, the number of spads who leave has been increasing as time goes on. In 2010 five left; in 2013 around 30 did. This makes sense: spads leave because of reshuffles, exhaustion, wanting to do something new—and getting out while the going is still good. But they must be replaced.

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The ‘Revolving Door’ of Special Advisers?

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A recent article in the Telegraph was critical of a ‘revolving door’ of special advisers (spads) from the last Labour government into charities or think tanks.

As outlined in the forthcoming book on spads by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell, this blog post wishes to point out that the Telegraph article tells only an incomplete story;[1] first, a ‘revolving door’ implies not merely that spads go to work in a given sector after leaving office but that they also did so before. Second, the article does not examine where Conservative spads head after their time in Whitehall.

On the idea of a revolving door, our project coded the careers of special advisers before and after their time in Whitehall. The data suggest that the idea of a ‘revolving door’ with respect to the non-profit sector is overblown. Rather, of those who worked in the non-profit sector at some point in their career (32% of Labour and 15% of Conservative spads), the vast majority (74%) only joined that sector after leaving Whitehall.

When looking at think tanks, the claims in the Telegraph article are on stronger ground. Labour advisers were again more likely to work in a think tank after leaving Whitehall (15% vs 8% for the Conservatives). Moreover, of those who worked for a think tank at any point in their career, around 30% of Labour did so both before and after their time as a special adviser (the definition of a ‘revolving door’) whilst only 6% of Conservative ones did so.

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Fewer Special Advisers run for Parliament than is generally thought, but those that do are quick to climb the ladder

Special Advisers becoming Members of Parliament is a phenomenon seen as symptomatic of a wider ‘professionalisation’ of British politics. Looking at the career progress of those Special Advisers who served between 1979 and 2010, Max Goplerud shows that they do not all seek a berth in Parliament, though those that do tend to experience rapid career progression. 

The notion that Special Advisers (“spads”) turned-MPs dominate the Government and Opposition frontbenches appears periodically in the media as exemplifying the rise of ‘career politicians’ and the ‘professionalisation of politics’. A forthcoming book on Special Advisers by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit explores the profession from 1979 to the present government and provides a detailed look into who they are, what they do, and their relationships and interactions with other actors in the political system.

My recent article for Parliamentary Affairs explores the ‘myth’ outlined above: Is it actually the case that Special Advisers invariably go into politics and rise to the top? The answer, in short, is no. Those Special Advisers who do run for Parliament are not particularly representative of the wider profession.

Despite the presence of some high profile MPs who were previously Special Advisers (most prominently David Cameron and Ed Miliband), the reality is less straightforward. While it is clear that the Special Advisers who do run for Parliament are generally successful (both in terms of their electoral success and subsequently in being promoted), they are not representative of the wider “spad” group. A more satisfactory explanation is that underlying factors drive a certain type of ambitious, politically minded individual to both become a Special Adviser and stand for Parliament. Those individuals are then in a strong position to draw upon the skills and connections they amassed during their time in Whitehall to further advance their political careers.

Special Advisers as Candidates

In total, around 25% of Conservative (1979-1997) and 10% of Labour (1997-2010) Special Advisers ran for Parliament at some point, with most of them doing so after leaving Whitehall. Whilst high compared to the proportion of other groups in the population, it is not so high in absolute terms. These individuals are somewhat younger than the ‘normal’ Special Adviser, with around 40%  of those standing for Parliament aged under 30 on their on their appointment as a special adviser. Conversely, only 25% of ‘ordinary’ Special Advisers are that young.

Figure 1: Number of special adviser candidates by general election

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This difference might be uninteresting if these ex-Special Advisers took a number of tries to get into Parliament or contested unwinnable seats. However, that is resoundingly not the case; 80% of “spads” (46 individuals) who stood after leaving Whitehall became MPs at some point. For Labour, 18 out of the 21 former Special Advisers who stood for Parliament have won every General Election they contested.

Special Advisers as MPs

Of those Special Advisers-turned-MPs, nearly half have achieved high office as a Secretary of State (or Shadow Secretary of State) at some point in their parliamentary career, with a full 80% achieving the rank of at least Minister of State. This is very different compared to the great mass of MPs who generally remain on the backbenches.

Special Advisers who become MPs tend to skip the established ‘career ladder’ and head straight to the frontbenches; many become Ministers of State without having first served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) or other comparable junior role. They also tend to be very young upon entering government. The data suggest that 17 ex-Special Advisers became (Shadow) Minister of State before their 40th birthday. Compare this to the median parliamentary candidate who is still attempting to be elected to Parliament at that age. This is also not only a Labour phenomenon—rapid promotion of Special Advisers also occurred under Conservative governments. For at least the last thirty years, Special Advisers-turned-MPs have experienced ‘super-charged’ careers in Parliament, outstripping even other types of ‘career politicians’.

On balance, there is clearly some credibility to the dominant narrative about Special Advisers becoming ministers insofar as those who have ministerial office as their goal seem to be quite successful at achieving it. The evidence suggests that having been a Special Adviser is a good signal that an individual is;

  • loyal to the party, and
  • has valuable prior experience with how government works.

Key actors, particularly selection bodies for parliamentary candidates and the party leadership (who may well be their former boss!) may see this as desirable and therefore push for these ex-Special Advisers to be placed in safe seats and promoted rapidly.

Yet, we should be careful to distinguish between those Special Advisers who do run for Parliament from those who do not. It is possible to be critical of the advancement of the first group whilst making a different evaluation about the desirability of the profession of “spads” more broadly. If one thinks this rapid promotion is normatively undesirable, it is a problem for the political parties to solve rather than an issue with Special Advisers writ large.

Note: this post represents the views of the author. It is based upon an article for Parliamentary Affairs which can be found here. It was originally posted on Democratic Audit: http://buff.ly/1frMuPI